August 24, 2022

Since micro-aggressions … are in a sense ambiguous, so that the recipient is apt to feel vaguely insulted, but since the words look and sound complimentary on the surface (they’re most often positive), she … doesn’t know how to respond.

Robin Lakoff, Professor Emerita, Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley

One of the Left’s favorite strategies is to accuse their political opponents of some alleged moral failing, racism, sexism, etc., in order to intimidate them. 

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This includes the charge that someone is guilty of “micro-aggressions” against some person or group.  The term was coined by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to denote common verbal, behavioral or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicates hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups.  This does not include things like calling someone racial slurs or blocking someone from attending a certain school.  Those sorts of things are aggressive and/or demeaning behaviors that virtually everyone agrees are wrong.  The notion of a micro-aggression is a new category designed to capture an alleged unrecognized subterranean level of hostility against marginalized groups.  For, although explicit racism, sexism, etc., may be on the decline a more subtle almost imperceptible level of aggression remains that is all the more dangerous because of its near invisibility. 

Proffered examples of micro-aggressions include things like asking a person of Asian descent where they are from (when, in fact, they were born in America), telling a black person that they are articulate (as if that is so uncommon that it merits recognition), calling a female boss “hysterical” (reinforcing a negative stereotype of women as emotional), telling a minority person that their name is hard to pronounce (as if they don’t fit in), complimenting a woman on her appearance in a professional setting (as if women are valued only for their appearance), telling a female colleague that she looks like a student (as if she is a child), offering to “set up” a gay friend with another gay friend (as if the fact that they are both gay means that they would want to know each other), using the word “normal” to describe heterosexuals (implying that non-heterosexual individuals are inferior), etc.

Accusations of micro-aggressions are often accompanied by suggested rules that specify alternative more acceptable ways of behaving.  Instead of telling a black person that they are articulate one should say “nothing. You can commend people on their specific ideas or insights, but commenting on how people speak is unnecessary.”  Instead of offering to “set up” one gay friend with another one should “Say nothing.  If [someone] of any sexual orientation wants your help meeting new people, they’ll ask you.”  Instead of telling an ethnic colleague their name is hard to pronounce “just ask them how to say it.  Don’t point out that it’s foreign or unfamiliar to you.”  Instead of telling a colleague that they look nice one should instead say “Nothing. There’s no reason to comment on a co-worker’s appearance,” and so on.

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The first problem with this theory is that the target of the alleged micro-aggression is restricted by definition to “marginalized” groups.  One cannot, by definition, micro-aggress against a white male.  Thus, telling a white male they weren’t invited to a certain concert because they don’t understand the blues is not, by definition, a micro-aggression even though it may have hurt them.  As usual, the Left defines terms to make members of their own constituency victims and forbids applying the same courtesy to their perceived political opponents. 

The real problem with the theory of micro-aggressions, however, is that most of the examples of micro-aggressions are not aggressions!

Mirriam-Webster defines “aggression” as 1.) “a forceful action or procedure such as an unprovoked attack, 2.) making attacks or encroachments, e.g., when one country violates the territory of another, 3.)  a hostile, injurious, or destructive behaviour or outlook.  The Oxford Reference Dictionary defines aggression as “Behaviour intended to harm a person either physically or mentally … [that] does not include unintentionally harming another person.” 

Telling someone that they are attractive, that they look like a student, that they are articulate, that they should meet someone that shares their same sexual preference are simply not “forceful actions,” “unprovoked attacks” or “hostile” behavior “intended to harm” someone.  Indeed, none of the above alleged “micro-aggressions” are, as the Oxford Dictionary requires, “intended” to harm anyone.  That is the whole point of calling them “micro-aggressions rather than actual aggressions.  As Prof. Lakoff admits, many of these alleged micro-aggressions “sound complimentary” and “most often positive.”  In many cases selected people are accused of micro-aggressing because they tried to compliment someone!

To be sure, some of the things called micro-aggressions might be inappropriate.  For example, a man telling a woman in a professional situation that she is attractive may be inappropriate but in most cases that is not aggression.  It might just be a mistake, or awkward, or stupid, or a slip or nervousness, etc. There is no univocal characterization for this sort of thing.  One must look at the details of the situation to determine how best to evaluate that sort of remark.

It is true that there might be some cases where this is aggression, for example, when the woman has already made clear that she doesn’t like it or when the offender knows that the woman loathes him.  However, in such cases the offensive act is real aggression, not micro-aggression!  In many cases when these alleged micro-aggressions are actually offensive they will, because of the specific circumstances, qualify as actual aggressions.